Friday, September 28, 2012

Aspiring Advice: Can We Romance Outside The Box?

Romance ... That word summons a kind of soft, sighing sound to our hearts, doesn't it (or depending on what audience you are, it makes us want to puke), but heart-sighing (and puking) aside, it can't be argued that a little romance has the power to draw in the reader and, on top of that, make audiences care about the characters more.

I had a bit of a conundrum about this recently, however ...

Some amazing things went down during this year's WriteOnCon. I received some excellent feedback, some most curious, concerning the portions of Woven and The Undead Road I shared. Some said Woven was juvenile or MG. Others said The Undead Road was YA. In truth, both books are the complete opposite of what others said they sounded like. This lead me to question: what drew this about?

Apparently, I may or may not have been following "the rules."

See, for Undead Road, I have a character mention a girl he likes, (who became a zombie), but because I had him use words like "crush," "gorgeous," and "heartthrob," it somehow made the character sound older than he really was (he's 14, albeit precocious when it comes to girls). Similarly, in Woven, two guys wrestle. I don't mention their ages until later, but because they're being watched by "boys," this somehow came across as MG-ish. How could I have botched this?

At another conference, this question was asked: "What's the key difference between MG and YA?" An agent answered, "The difference is maturity and romance. MG shouldn't venture beyond puppy-love and YA can get to second base (and if done right, beyond that)."

So, based on the content of these two stories (no spoilers, sorry), by definition, Woven and Undead are in their respective markets. What about the contrary feedback? Don't get me wrong, I appreciated the feedback and made some changes based on it, but then, I was still confused. Is there some parameter I'm not following? Am I supposed to label an entire story into a market based on a first page? Am I not allowed to express any inclination of romance in a MG novel?

Take these fine shows for example - the characters are MG age:  

Super 8 ...
Adventure Time ...
Avatar: The Last Airbender ...
And how about this MG/YA mash-up?
(These are the kind of stories I write for young readers, btw...)

As you can see, some romance can enhance any story, regardless of its market. It just has to be done right/well. YA doesn't have to jump into describing someone you like right away, either. There's no right or wrong answer here, guys. We're writers. We're allowed to think outside the box. That's where the better stories come from, I think. When it comes to romance (or puppy love), it's about timing and how many tiers we go. And if there is to be romance in MG, there better be something to keep them from going to the next level (until they become YA age later - cause that would be way awkward, dude).

I was a kid once. And a teenager. I once had a crush on a girl since I was five, all the way through high school (which intensified each year - dumb hormones), so for me, varying levels of romance is plausible in any age. If a 13 year-old character never once shows interest in someone, anyone, in a like-like fashion, or never admits someone is kinda cute, how am I to believe this kid has a soul? I could be in the minority here, but like any element of writing, I can't be confined. I must explore. I have to see where this story can go, even if that means having to romance outside the box. Yes - it can be done!

This is not the rule, just my thoughts on the matter. It's not about needing to know what market a story is in after reading the first page. It's about that first page being good, that the story is told well, that it works. If it doesn't, we can fix that. There are way too many conflicting opinions and rules on how things should be that it's easy to forget what something is for what it is, and maybe it's okay for it to be something that we wouldn't impliment in our own writing.

One baker's cookie cutter may not cut it for another baker's batch.

(Say that five times fast ... )

What's your take on this topic? Do you read for market or story? Do you romance outside the box or move within the expected?

I'm David, and stay away from tier 15!


  1. I honestly didn't think Aang's romance with Katara in Avatar enhanced anything. He's just a kid. He shouldn't be kissing anyone. It just felt slapped in there for no good reason. It wasn't as if he didn't have enough motivation already.

  2. It's funny because when you said you used the words Gorgeous, Crush, and Heartthrob, I thought hey, that must be MG. I thought Super 8 did MG romance great, and I thought Avatar did it fantastically...until the actual kiss. And I've always wondered why Goosegirl would be arranged marriage ain't exactly Jr. High material. BUT, my Jr. Higher loves those books. So I guess I'm as baffled as you are.

  3. I think the line is blurred because when you're talking about young people and romance, their maturity levels are over the place. Some teens are ready for love in the early years and others not until later. Because of the different rates of maturity, some want more romance in MG books than others. No right or wrong answer.

  4. Over at the Prosers, most of us adult women adore Avatar. So do my kids. I actually loved the kiss--we watched all the episodes in a pretty condensed space of time, and in each season the characters grew...they may have started in MG, but by the end of the series, they seemed like YA to me.

    Goose Girl is one of those books that blurs the genre, and thank goodness those books are out there! Keep writing them. This was a great post.

  5. I read for story, the romance should fit the character and it shouldn't matter the age becasue if the character acts his age it will fit perfectly. You've given me a lot to ponder Mr. King. Now I'm off to go read :)

  6. I heard that originally Katara and Zuko were going to be the romance of the story.

    I'm afraid I'm as confused as you. It seems "romance" is all over the place in both MG and YA and it depends on who you are and who the editor/publisher is as to what's acceptable.

  7. I read for story. It's hard to find books that would fit into a "market" that I readily peruse since essentially, I'm not really a "box" kind of person.

  8. Hey,

    I will readily admit to not being an expert on MG or YA - not having read a lot - yet, but I would agree with Susan above. I think that the lines can be blurred depending on the story and its characters.

    Which would allow for an out-of-the-box romantic experience. I would never make the MC or their buddies stay within a certain box. (Wouldn't that feel like you're forcing the story...?)

    I'm Mark and I, too, was once a child :)

  9. i can be pretty forgiving of a love seeming too young or too naive but am pretty intolerant of a love maturing too fast. MG characters talking about getting to 2nd base or beyond, though it happens, can turn me off pretty quickly from a book. But if the overall tone of the book is conducive to higher maturity, I can go along with it.

    It's these kinds of questions that make the micro-labeling of books frustrate me. Sometimes blurry is better.

  10. Mostly, I say ignore the rules. Not the grammar rules, of course, but any kind of manufactured rules about how you should write your story. It's your story; you tell it the way it needs to be told. If you do it well, people will want to read no matter what category it does or does not fit into.
    On the whole, agents should be ignored. They are literary eunuchs working for The Man (traditional publishers).
    (okay, so that may be harsh, but it sounded good, so I'm sticking with it.)

  11. Oh the whole age appropriate thing baffles me sometimes too! There seem to be so many differing opinions on it and I guess publishers/editors etc are always going to have their own ideas. But then again so will the people reading them! Let us know if you ever have a definitive answer on this one, David. Very interesting post, thanks.

  12. First of all, disregard any feedback from WriteOnCon that doesn't make sense to you. Everyone means well, but not everyone is right. And besides, you can only get an impression from an excerpt of someone's work (which is why I call my first page critique series "First Impressions"). It's useful to know what a person's first impression is, but realistically speaking, most readers will know what kind of story it is from reading the blurb/jacket/query etc.

    As for romance and other MG/YA rules (or rules in general), something well done trumps any rule. I think YA romances in general have more intensity about them, whereas MG romances are treated more matter-of-factly and usually are not the main thrust of the story.

    I was recently asked by my agent to change a manuscript from a YA target audience to a MG audience. (And I thought her reasons were excellent.) It was only a matter of toning things down. I kept every single kiss in the story -- but I didn't describe lips, tongues, or groping hands. They kissed. The consequences of the kisses might have been good or bad, but the kisses themselves were not described. See what I mean?

  13. I do agree that upper MG can have romance and kids that age are starting to explore that and have boyfriends/girlfriends. It may be toned down but I think it's totally okay to have it in a MG story and like you said it is in these kind of stories. So I wouldn't worry about it though you might want to tone down the words in the first pages if you're concerned.

    Everyone has different opinions on everything. It's important to remember with critiques that no one is God. Trust your instincts while listening to advice.

  14. Maybe at the middle grade level the romance could be a little sillier--maybe throw in a daydream that would never happen in real life. At the YA level, please, please don't make it the only reason for the MC's existence. That's all I'm saying. (And I should just stay off the comment section, because I'm out of my genre.)

  15. You know the characters better than anyone else. If they have feelings to express, go for it! :)

  16. I wouldn't get hung up on the feedback. You're right about not having to show those things from page 1. And I read a MG that was intended for lower MG and they kissed. It doesn't have to be a formula. And when I was 12 and 13 I had my first boyfriends, first kisses. So, I think you are correct in kids that age liking the opposite sex. ;0)

  17. I read for story. I don't think romance in MG is out of place--I can't see the more explicit content working in the age group, but I don't think it's unrealistic to have characters go somewhat beyond liking each other.

  18. When I was in fifth/sixth grade, I saw a few kids my age with boyfriends and girlfriends. So the notion of a MG-character being involved in a romance isn't unheard of. If there's sex involved, the story might fit better in YA.

  19. We're allowed to think outside the box. That's where the better stories come from, I think.

    I 100% agree with this. But the idea that a 13yo that's not interested in girls doesn't have a soul...well, I hope that's not true, because I have a son like that. :) I also have a 9yo son who thinks that every good story ends with a kiss! So, it all depends on the character.

    You have to take feedback with a grain of salt, but if I were to try to parse the feedback you were given, I would say that the "tone" of your story (which is language+style+voice+some extra spice ingredient) spoke more MG in one and more YA in the other. For me, my MG stories have a touch of awkwardness, a confusion of feelings for the opposite sex, a sense that this friend might be more than that. I don't have a lot of active pining or intensity - but I can see a character that might have that, in an innocent way that doesn't really touch on the depth of emotion that a YA character would have. For YA, I think the feelings of love are as intense (maybe more so) as an adult. There's passion as well as love - and a whole lot of flirting, and maybe physical stuff as well. There's a feeling that the world will stop rotating on it's axis if this person doesn't love us back. That intensity, more than if they get to second base, is my criteria for YA.

    Great Post! And if you're thinking about it, you're doing the right thing. :)

  20. I just got done chopping all 'romance' out of my MG - only though she simply had butterflies,found his smile cute, and felt funny when he grabbed her hand. They should stay friends is the rule.

    Dumb rule (I think.)

    My own kids were already talking about boy/girlfriends when they were ten (obviously on a different level than 16 :)) but still... they got butterflies. And yep, I know many 7th and 8th graders caught kissing in the hallways. If 13 yr.old characters are to be realistic, they will 'fall in love'.

    Maybe I'll build those scenes back in -- just to be box breaking ;)

  21. Hi, David,
    For me, as long as the story is believable, then I'm not to fussy about age grouping. The other side to that is what your audience might think about youngsters and romance. I don't read a lot of YA, but it seems to me that romance is a big thing in the genre these days.

  22. Yeah, there's definitely romance potential in YA. Think about Brandon Sanderson's Alcatraz series, or even Artemus Fowl.

  23. romance is not a big part of my stories. my stories are adventures, not much time for getting into any romantic situations. one of my books is def adult, but the other is mg or ya and i am having a hard time deciding which. i'm fine with mg, but the characters are 16-17 and deal with high school age issues but no intense love scenes. i stay away from writing those =)